Skip to main content

Sake Continues Its Measured, Methodical Rise through the Spirit Ranks

Sake Fest Sake One Oregon Craft Glasses
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Walking around last week’s Saké Fest PDX in Portland, Oregon, you see why the Japanese beverage has had trickling growth in the States. The variety is daunting and it’s not an easily accessible category.

The subtle nuances between “Junmai” and “Nigori” are tough to discern for inexperienced palettes and the beautiful artwork on most of the bottles doesn’t display much information unless you can read Japanese.

However, the tradition and practice of sake hasn’t lasted millennia just out of novelty. It’s a unique category literally steeped in the values of Asian drinking culture.

the making of sake one for sake fest
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While the exact origins are disputed, one of the more prevalent theories is to date saké brewing back as far as 2,500 years when rice growing became commonplace in Japan. The earliest written records of saké are in third-century Chinese history books. They document saké drinking as a tradition while in mourning.

Fast forward a couple thousand years and saké is still brewed with the same four main ingredients: rice, water, yeast and an enzyme called koji. The process begins by hulling, polishing and removing impurities from brown rice grains. Spores of a special mold are added to the rice (after steaming) and then incubated to produce koji. That mixture is added to a yeast starter, which helps convert the rice starch into glucose. After a unique fermentation process, the new liquid is sent through a press to filter it. From there, it’s pasteurized and placed in cold storage to mature. After various filtration and aging options, the final product is done.

the making of sake one for sake fest
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Back at Saké Fest, one of the larger tasting displays is from Oregon’s own SakéOne. The Forest Grove-based company is one of the only producers on the West Coast and easily the largest in the country.

“We’re kind of on our own island,” says SakéOne President and CEO Steve Vuylsteke. The beverage industry veteran comes from a family that started one of the state’s premier wineries and he went on to manage Erath before moving over to saké eight years ago. He estimates there are 20-24 producers nationally, many “garage-sized.”

SakéOne makes three labels locally – all premium – Momokawa, a Junmai Gingo; Moonstone, a Junmai that becomes a Junmai Gingo after flavoring is added; and g, their most flavor-forward offering. They also import six sakes, making them one of the larger companies doing so.

Each grade of saké is relatively mild, but after a few tastes, one can begin to discover the nuances.

the making of sake one for sake fest
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Junmai is the simplest, made from the four main ingredients. Two more grades of Junmai are based on how much of the rice grain has been polished away. It goes all of the way to Nigori, which is unpressed, unfiltered and remains cloudy.

Vuylsteke says that beyond the varieties, many consumers are still only drinking it warm or hot when several grades are actually better cold.

“Their experience is not favorable and a lot of it is because of the lack of education about the beverage,” he says.

He adds that it’s encouraging to see new and younger drinkers get into saké. That was certainly evident at Saké Fest where many late 20- and early 30-somethings tasted their way through dozens of grades from small East Coast producers to some of Japan’s biggest.

Vuylsteke says that one of his next challenges is getting imbibers to think outside Asian cuisine when pairing sake with food.

“You can pair it with just about anything across the American cuisine landscape,” he says. “You don’t have to follow rules like in wine pairing.”

Sake Fest Sake One Oregon Craft Event
Image used with permission by copyright holder

He’ll also continue developing education to get Americans to move on from the saké bomb. He sees a climate down the road, much like tequila is today, with drinkers turning to sake as a sipping drink and not as a shooter.

“There’s going to be more intrigue,” he says.

Some of the collaborations at Saké Fest have already gone to prove that. Portland’s Burnside Brewing Co. worked with Japan’s Shonan Beer to create Sakura Gose, a sour brewed with salted Japanese cherry blossoms that’s on tap year-round. It’s a beautiful, light transition brew for those en route to the world of saké.

As American drinkers search for the exotic and undiscovered, saké will continue to grow from a niche product into one of the everyday lexicon. It will rightfully move on from a fast shooter to something to savor.

Editors' Recommendations

Geoff Nudelman
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Geoff is a former contributor to The Manual. He's a native Oregonian who’s always up for a good challenge and a great hike…
How to make your own hot honey at home (so you can add it to your food and drinks)
The possibilities are endless on how you can use hot honey
Hot honey on meat

The combination of "spicy" and "sweet" holds a lauded position in many international cuisines, with chefs and diners celebrating the way these seemingly contradictory flavors complement each other. From General Tso’s chicken to Mexican chocolate, the popularity of spicy-sweet foods shows no signs of dying down, much to the delight of this writer, a self-proclaimed lover of heat.

In recent years, a condiment that perfectly encapsulates the spicy and sweet appeal has carved out a major niche for itself, and its name is "hot honey." Companies like Mike’s Hot Honey and Bushwich Kitchen (Bees Knees Spicy Honey) successfully sell pre-made versions of this treat, but it’s surprisingly easy to make at home, and we’re here to guide you through the process.   
What is hot honey?

Read more
The history of Pilsner, one of the planet’s most popular beers
If you imbibe in Pilsners, then you should know these facts
Three friends cheering with glasses of pilsner beer

Of all the beers, Pilsner has one of the coolest histories. Named after the Czech Republic town (Plzen), which it was born in, Pilsner is the planet's original pale lager. It has since become one of the most brewed and guzzled beer styles anywhere.
What are the origins of Pilsner beer?

One of the most interesting aspects of its origin story is that Pilsner literally turned the game on its head. Prior to its invention in the mid-19th century, brewers top-fermented their beers. Essentially, this means that the fermenting wort was pitched yeast on the surface to get the fermentation process rolling. Brewing this way requires higher temperatures and could result in irregularities and off-flavors or aromas. The Pilsner was the first true bottom-fermented beer. The process tends to be a bit slower, involves lower temperatures, and almost always yields a cleaner beer. To this day, ale implies top-fermented, while lager stands for bottom-fermented.

Read more
How to grill spicy Turkish Adana kebabs (and more tips)
Haven't tried Turkish kebabs yet? You're missing out — here's what to know
Turkish Adana kebab plate with grilled vegetables

In the Middle East, there are countless varieties of grilled and skewered meats. Many of these kebabs are made with ground meat, ranging from the parsley-rich kofta kebab of Lebanon to the soft and savory koobideh kebab of Iran. One of the most famous of these styles is the Adana kebab, a spicy Turkish lamb mince fragrant with chili peppers. Is your mouth watering yet? Keep reading to learn more about Adana kebabs.
What is the Adana kebab?

The Adana kebab originated from the southern Turkish city of Adana. A proper Adana kebab is serious business in Turkey — the dish is officially a protected designation of origin (PDO). Essentially, this means that a true Adana kebab can only be made in the city of Adana and only by someone who has cleared a series of rules.

Read more